The U.S. role as a consumer of natural stone continues to increase at a rapid pace, as it imported $1.95 billion worth of stone in 2004. This represents an all-time high, and an increase of nearly 30% over 2003, when stone imports reached a total of $1.51 billion. It is also nearly 125% more than the total of $870 million that was reached five years ago.

Breaking it down by material, the U.S. imported 1.8 million tons of granite, with a value of $967 million; 1.3 tons of marble, with a value of $836.6 million; $103.2 million worth of slate; and $39.9 million worth of other materials, such as dolomite or sandstone. It should be noted that the government classification for “marble” includes all calcareous materials, so limestone and travertine imports are technically recorded as marble by the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Interestingly, granite imports had a higher value than marble imports for the first time ever. This fact is easily explained by ever-growing popularity of granite kitchen countertops in residential environments. This has increased U.S. imports of granite slabs significantly over the past few years, and that trend is expected to continue in the future.

Italy remains far and away the leading exporter of natural stone to the U.S. in terms of dollars, leading in the categories of both granite and marble. Breaking it down by material, Italy exported over 294,000 tons of granite to the U.S. in 2004, with a value of $277.9 million. It also exported over 290 tons of marble, with a value of $185.6 million, $8.1 million worth of slate and $600,000 worth of other materials such as dolomite and sandstone. In all, exports of stone from Italy to the U.S. totaled approximately $471.9 million dollars.

It is important to note, however, a stone material has to simply be processed in Italy to be registered as an “Italian” stone by U.S. Customs -- no matter where it was originally quarried. For example, if a block of Baltic Brown granite is quarried in Finland and shipped to Italy to be cut into slabs, it is classified as “Italian” granite when it is imported into the U.S. So it is very difficult to quantify the exports of countries that are large block producers -- such as Finland and Norway -- but that do not export much stone in a finished or semi-finished format. Of course, this also applies to other countries as well. The nation where the stone is processed is credited with the export.

Granite imports

In the granite sector, one of the most notable exporters has been Brazil, which exported $267.9 million worth of granite to the U.S. in 2004, placing it a close second behind Italy's total of $277.9 million. Brazil has been the second leading supplier of granite for several years, and it is rapidly closing the gap with Italy to attain the top spot. Its monthly export totals of granite to the U.S. last year were higher than Italy's on several occasions, and last year's difference between the countries was a mere 4%. In terms of tonnage, Brazil actually exported more granite to the U.S. than Italy last year, reaching a total of over 596,000 tons. The disparity of Brazilian granite's value per ton as compared to Italy is likely due to the fact that granite exports from Brazil have primarily been slabs (and some tiles), while Italian exports to the U.S. have included a greater percentage of custom architectural work, which typically has a higher cost per ton. Additionally, some of the most expensive granites in the world, such as Blue Pearl from Norway, are generally processed in Italy, thus raising the overall cost per ton for slabs as well.

Unlike the trend in Italy, the granite that is exported from Brazil is almost exclusively quarried within the country. In fact, many of the world's leading European stone producers -- including firms from Spain and Italy, among others -- have opened large-scale fabrication plants in Brazil, and they focus their exports heavily on the U.S. market.

India is another major exporter of granite, primarily material that was also quarried in India, and it exported over 367,000 tons to the U.S. with a value of $152.7 million last year. The value represents an increase of nearly 60% over 2003's total of $97.3 million.

The most dramatic increase in granite exports can be found in China, which exported over 225,000 tons of granite worth $130.5 million to the U.S. in 2004, a rise of nearly 90% over the previous year's total of $69 million.

Other notable exporters of granite to the U.S. in 2004 were Taiwan ($36.7 million; over 40,000 tons), Canada ($35.1 million; 64,000 tons) and Spain ($31.2 million, 40,000 tons).

Marble imports

By far, the leading exporter of marble to the U.S. in 2004 was Turkey, which shipped nearly 493,000 tons with a value of $247.7 million. Turkish stone suppliers have vast reserves of marble, limestone and travertine, all of which are categorized as “marble” by U.S. Customs.

Italy was a distant second in marble exports to the U.S., totaling 205,000 tons valued at $184 million. This total represents a combination of marble that was quarried in Italy as well as material brought in from other countries.

The number three exporter of marble to the U.S. in 2004 was Mexico, reaching totals of $101.6 million and 110,000 tons. This figure is largely comprised of travertine and limestone, especially light beige varieties, although some traditional marble has been exported as well. Spain, with its broad range of marble from the southern and southeastern part of the country, was the fourth largest exporter of marble to the U.S. in 2004, having exported 138,000 tons of material with a value of $91.4 million. Rounding out the top five marble exporters to the U.S. is China, which reached totals of $55.8 million and 97,000 tons.

The next two highest exporters of “marble” to the U.S. were Israel and France -- countries that actually specialize in limestone. The growing popularity of Jerusalem Stone has resulted in marble export totals of $21.1 million and 21,000 tons to the U.S. in 2004. French limestone exports to the U.S. also remained steady last year, as figures reached $19.1 million and 64,500 tons.

Other materials

The import figures for slate have risen incrementally over the past four years, with the largest jump coming during the past year. Slate imports reached a total of $103.2 million last year, up 22% over 2003's total of $84.6 million. (The U.S. Department of Commerce does not include tonnage for slate in its published statistics). However, it fell short of 1999's figure of $117.2 million. It should be noted, however, that 1999 was the only year prior to 2004 that slate exports to the U.S. reached the $100 million mark.

India and China are responsible for over 70% of all slate exports to the U.S. India is the top exporter of slate to the U.S., with a total of $40 million exported in 2004. This represents an increase of 25% over the previous year's total. However, India's position in the top spot is being pushed hard by China, which reached a total of $32.3 million in 2004, an increase of over 30% from the year before.

Rounding out the top five slate exporters to the U.S. are Italy ($8.6 million), the United Kingdom ($2.9 million) and Spain ($1.7 million).

Materials listed in the broad category of “other” include materials classified by the U.S. Department of Commerce as “NESOI” (not elsewhere specified or indicated). In addition to materials in this somewhat vague category, stones classified as “other” also include dolomite and sandstone. Predictably, our NAFTA partners Canada ($26.1 million) and Mexico ($1.9 million) were the top two exporters in this indistinct classification of stone.